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South Dakota's colleges face a reckoning with Regents, Pierre over diversity, cost-cutting measures

In separate meetings this week, college administrators heard from students in Vermillion angry over proposed upending of a campus diversity office while the Regents' executive director tried to calm a curious crowd on the campus of Black Hills State about budget-tightening measures that have been directed by a 2020 law.

South Dakota Board of Regents Executive Director Brian Maher speaks to a gathering at The Joy Center on the campus of Black Hills State University in Spearfish, S.D., on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, about potential tightening of the campus's budget. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
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SPEARFISH, S.D. — As combines crisscross the state's cornfields, the administrators running South Dakota's colleges have been reaping their own harvest, touring campuses to hear from university communities about the coming changes grown over the long, summer months.

So far, the reaction has been less than celebratory.

On Tuesday, Sept. 28, days before the annual D-Days homecoming, students packed a ballroom on the University of South Dakota campus for a tense, emotional airing of grievances about plans to scuttle diversity centers in favor of a so-called "opportunity center" with a provost and a university attorney.

"The opportunity center is not a replacement for the CDC [Center for Diversity & Community]," reassured Kurt Hackemer , USD's provost and vice president for academic affairs.

The next day in Spearfish, South Dakota, a similarly fraught conversation was held in a cramped alumni center on the campus of Black Hills State University, as South Dakota Board of Regents Executive Director Brian Maher tried to calm a nervous audience of residents and college employees that SDBOR had no intention of merging their school with the School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City or slashing classes.


"What a wonderful turnout tonight," Maher said, with a smile, at the Wednesday, Sept. 29, meeting.

The audience remained silent.

The moment this week has been a remarkable encounter between a board of college administrators who, under the direction of increasingly politicized decision-making from Republican lawmakers in Pierre, are tasked with upending offices, staff workload, and — some fear — potentially curriculum for the residents and workers in the state's college towns.

In Vermillion, students seemed skeptical of the USD administration's talking points. One wiped away tears as she recounted making friends at a multicultural conference organized by the Center for Diversity & Community. Another, student body president Ally Feiner, alleged that when legislators from the Joint Committee on Appropriations arrived to Vermillion this summer, one lawmaker asked for the area of campus "celebrating the white culture."

And in expressing support for the Center, Marcus Destin, a university employee who said he spoke as a former student, noted finding everything from a study spot to meals to community as a Black student on a largely white campus.

"What happens," he paused, searching for the right word, "... to us?"

If Wednesday was a release of mounting campus frustration with Pierre, it came roughly two months after the SDBOR made a harried announcement in early August that they'd be establishing " Opportunity Centers" at the state's six public universities.

The regents' statement mentioned nothing about the fate of diversity centers on campuses but was seen by many as as an olive branch to a sitting governor, Republican Kristi Noem, who'd days earlier publicly tangled with anti-racist scholar Ibram Kendi and has accused the 1619 Project of trying to "further divide students based on the color of their skin."


Later on Aug. 5, Noem's office released a statement saying she was "glad" to see the diversity centers were "being replaced by Opportunity Centers."

On Wednesday, students and faculty in Vermillion had a hard time squaring out the differences between the governor's announcement and the nuts-and-bolts plan emerging from USD (and other colleges) under the marching orders from SDBOR.

One student-athlete asked if the school's NCAA Division-1 status could be jeopardized. Basic Biomedical Sciences Professor Brian Burrell noted many colleagues were awarded grants with "diversity elements in them," asking, "Do we have to give them back to the NIH [National Institutes of Health]?"

Across the state, the Spearfish community also tried wrapping their mind around the still-unclear proposals from SDBOR coming out of the task force convened by Senate Bill 55 , a bill passed in the 2020 session calling on the regents to find "efficiencies" in their operations.

Already, that impetus spun off into a separate measure this past legislative session that gutted green-building standards on new constructions on campus. On Wednesday, the SDBOR's leadership promised more potential targets for cost-savings, from a single food vendor across six campuses to shifting more courses to online models and axing low-enrollment classes, which are common in the liberal arts. SDBOR officials have previously promised the cuts wouldn't touch athletics.

Still, the crowd in Spearfish called for specifics, noting the legislature had historically been underfunding the northern Hills campus relative to other, more populated universities out east.

"My USD friends get 31%, we get 18%," said former legislator Fred Romkema. "This has been going on for about 40 years."

When Sen. Ryan Maher , an Isabel Republican who spearheaded SB 55 and has doggedly attacked diversity measures in public colleges, took the podium, he argued the university had — just years earlier — "been on the verge of bankruptcy" and said he wanted to "shock" the community into working to save its college. Then he noted he was pleased by the turnout of local dignitaries, including the mayor.


"I heard he was here tonight," said Maher.

"She!" responded the crowd (referencing Mayor Dana Boke).

On both fronts, the plans have yet to materialize. The regents will release a full report on SD 55 by the end of November, and BHSU President Laurie Nichols assured the Spearfish audience that "most students won't even know" about many of the "back-of-house" changes planned, such as sharing human resource duties with School of Mines.

In Vermillion, USD's Hackemer said each college will get to envision "opportunity centers" for themselves, even placing a single office inside the current Center for Diversity & Community.

"It is always a challenge finding physical space," said USD's top attorney, A.J. Franken. "We are going to look for feedback and get some more feedback."

And before winter, there'll be more meetings to come.

University of South Dakota employee and former student Marcus Destin rises to speak about the proposal changes to the campus's Center for Diversity and Community at a listening session in Vermilion, S.D., on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (Vondracek / Forum News Service)

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